#Mesto: recording Bartok 6 (no decisions please)
I grew up in awe of the Bartok quartets. The year I was born my father’s quartet (the Concord Quartet) played the Bartok cycle at Dartmouth College, and my mother has always said that in utero I moved the most to the 5th quartet. Perhaps not coincidentally the 5th quartet has always been my favorite. Also not coincidentally Bartok’s music has always felt like coming home for me, a musical language I welcome.
The Chiara Quartet started playing Bartok from the very beginning. When we were college students 20 years ago at the Aspen Music Festival we worked on Bartok 4, coaching with members of the Takacs, Emerson and Juilliard Quartets. Throughout our career we savored the learning of each of these fantastical, beautiful and raucous quartets until it became clear to us a few years ago that the Bartok cycle needed to be our next project by heart, speeding up our learning process significantly.
We recorded the 1st-5th quartets in what I would call optimal conditions. We had just performed our first complete cycle by heart at New York’s Barge Music, right before we recorded Bartok 1, 3 and 5, then we recorded Bartok 2 and 4 the following semester. We were in shape; we eased into the acoustics we loved at Troy Savings Music Bank Hall (where we recorded the Brahms quartets); and we enjoyed working with Alan Bise and Bruce Egre from Azica Records.
Recording Bartok 6, on the other hand, proved to be elusive.
From a practical standpoint, we had trouble scheduling the sessions, and when we finally decided to record the second week of January 2016, we received a performance engagement the week beforehand that would make our normally intensive preparation quite challenging. On a musical level, connecting with Bartok 6 is always existentially tricky. The 6th quartet is a work of uncompromising beauty, sadness, sardonicism and longing. Written in four movements, the first three begin with a slow introduction marked “Mesto” (meaning sad), and the 4th movement is entirely Mesto.
These mesto’s are the kind of music the Chiara Quartet has always delved into with relish. We have also consistently sought personal resonance with the composer’s experience while writing. Maybe in the case of Bartok 6, however, it is impossible for us to understand Bartok’s deep struggle with his mother’s death and yearning for/frustration with for his home country while writing this final quartet, his last work written in Hungary before emigrating to the United States.
In this recording we realized the most we could offer is our own authenticity, being fully ourselves while playing the music. Instead of trying to “play well” and “make a great recording” we just needed to give and do more. How would we be able to find this musically unfettered place? In the recording preparation we made no final decisions…
1. We recorded/listened to ourselves very early on in the process. Instead of waiting until we were close to a finished product, we wanted to hear things that were really raw; this helped us to figure out larger musical moments and risks we wanted to take.
2. We divided our rehearsal days into distinct types of rehearsing. One day was only large-scale musical rehearsal, where we allowed ourselves to try wild, on-the-edge ideas. Another day was a refinement rehearsal day (ensemble, intonation, etc.), each spot only given 45-60 seconds of work, not for perfection but for awareness.
3. We didn’t make any decisions about the final outcome. Perhaps the most crucial difference for our group, we prioritized trying ideas and opening our ears instead of locking us into one way of playing a particular passage. String quartets live for the ability to unify and engage the music with great ensemble and musical cohesion. But as one mentor wisely said, the singular pursuit of unity can turn into “the quartet disease: over-control.”
Without fail, the ideas from our rehearsal that sounded and felt the most extreme (“can we DO that??”) were the ones we gravitated towards in the Bartok 6 recording session, from the most vulnerable to the most brutal. We had practiced going beyond our comfort zones, and we had built in judgment/refinement-free rehearsals. This allowed us to be more us, and more open to the mysteries of the Bartok’s music.
As we listen to the edits of the quartets right now, I am quite aware of how the recording experience of Bartok 6 changed me, and our group. Building this level of creative experimentation into the daily rehearsal process has helped us to be more fiercely excited and committed in the long term. It also inspired us (our cellist Greg’s idea) to introduce a new kind of rehearsal--extremify!—into our work.
I look forward to this Friday’s performance of Bartok 4 and 6 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and to a continued wider perspective.